by Ulrich Kindermann, Program Officer with the Tribal Liaison Office
Afghanistan provides yet another example of the numerous linkages that exist between environment and security. The Post Conflict Environmental Assessment published by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in January 2003 made this amply clear. Indeed, in south-east Afghanistan, taken here as the region comprising the provinces Paktya, Paktika and Khost, conflicts are often directly related to the environment and natural resources. South-east Afghanistan is located along the border with Pakistan and is more or less exclusively inhabited by Pashtun tribes. Together with southern Afghanistan it is considered one of the most unsafe regions in the country. Since all Pashtuns tend to be labelled as Taliban supporters, the significant differences between the two regions are often overlooked. While local militias and a few family clans wield great influence in southern Afghanistan, they play little or no role in the south-eastern part of the country. Tribal elders and traditional institutions are all-important here; their involvement is crucial to achieving stability and security.
The representatives of tribes and communities in the south generally pursue the same objectives as the government and the donor community when it comes to development projects. They desire stability and security, and they oppose terrorism, lawlessness, and drug cultivation. The elimination of the drug cultivation problem, in fact, illustrates just how much influence the tribes have. According to the Opium Survey 2005 conducted by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 38 hectares were under opium cultivation in the Paktya province in 2002. These increased to 720 in 2003 and to 1200 hectares one year later. In 2005 opium cultivation in Paktya suddenly ceased. The survey does not mention any reasons, but in November 2004, a jirga - large assembly - attended by representatives from all tribes in Paktya was convened at the initiative of the governor. The participants resolved to ban opium cultivation. And they were successful, as subsequent developments proved, in contrast to almost all other parts of the country.
The large number of conflicts between different tribes and communities in the region is therefore all the more surprising. The causes in most cases are natural resources - primarily forest and land. Many of these conflicts have been continuing for decades, some have persisted for over 100 years. Many conflicts turn violent, resulting in fatalities and injuries.
Simultaneously, several new conflicts have emerged and are still emerging. Over the last decade uncontrolled deforestation took place in the formerly densely forested region, often resulting in soil erosion and other environmental damage. The growing resource scarcity in turn heightened the potential for conflict. The "neo Taliban" is already attempting to exploit existing and nascent conflicts for destabilizing the Paktya province - so far regarded as relatively secure. Doubtlessly the drug mafia would also be interested in such a development, as it would allow it to conduct its smuggling activities unhindered into neighbouring Pakistan. Thus, improbable as it may sound, an important step towards stabilization and development in south-east Afghanistan is environmental protection and reforestation. This will reduce the potential for conflict, since virtually all local conflicts in Afghanistan revolve around resource sharing. Reforestation projects can act as a first step towards mediating existing resource conflicts, especially in the south-eastern region, where forests are frequently the root cause. Once both conflicting parties have access to more forest, the disputed forest area - and consequently the conflict - loses significance. A further positive fall-out is the creation of new income generation opportunities for the communities, either directly through employment in forest activities or indirectly, e.g. gathering pine nuts and other forest produce.
In practice, however, it is very difficult to implement such projects in the region. The main hurdles are usually bureaucratic red tape and opposition from those sitting in far away offices. On the other hand, there is no lack of support from the government, the population and the local tribes. UNEP's plans to implement a community-based resource management project in Paktya ran aground due to UN security regulations. Compliance with the regulations would have pushed costs up so much that the project would have been financially unviable. Efforts by the Green Afghanistan Initiative (GAIN), a joint programme of six UN organizations and the Tribal Liaison Office, an Afghan NGO, have been similarly unsuccessful in establishing a large scale reforestation project and centre in Paktya. One of the biggest donors rejected the proposal on the grounds that no funds were available for that particular sector in Paktya. Other donors refused due to security concerns or because the planned activities did not coincide with their own priorities or promotion criteria. Environment and security in south-east Afghanistan consequently continues to be an area with tremendous yet virtually untapped potential.
Ulrich Kindermann (geographer) worked as Program Officer with the Tribal Liaison Office (www.tlo-afghanistan.org) from February to early August 2006. He is currently working on a doctoral thesis in the field of environment and security in Afghanistan. For further information, please contact Mr. Kindermann (email@example.com)
Published in: ECC-Newsletter, August 2006